A Parent's Guide to Car Seats
Type “car seat” into any search engine and you’ll end up with more results than you know what to do with.
With a myriad of options for brands, styles, prices and colors, where do you start? And what’s the best one for your child right now? We’re here to help as we break down what you need to know when shopping for your first (or next) car seat. Because we understand what matters most: keeping your little ones safe.
Whether you’re a first-time parent or a seasoned pro, brushing up on your car seat know-how can give you some much-needed peace of mind before you set out on your next drive.
How To Choose the Right Child Safety Seat
As your child grows, the kind of car seat they need will evolve right along with them. Thankfully, there’s a car seat option to fit every stage of your child’s life.
The kind of seat your child needs is determined by three factors: their age, weight and size. We dive into the four types of seats below, along with the suggested National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) age ranges for each. As you read through this list, keep in mind that each car seat comes with its own maximum height and weight specifications. While the ages suggested by the NHTSA provide an excellent guideline, always refer to the manufacturer’s stated limits.
Rear-facing car seats
All infants and younger children should be in a car seat that faces the back of your vehicle. This is the safest possible position.
- Newborn to 12 months: Exclusively rear-facing.
- 1 to 3 years old: Use a rear-facing seat until the child reaches the car seat’s maximum weight or height limit.
Forward-facing car seats
As the name implies, this car seat faces the front of your vehicle. But rather than using a seat belt, your child will be buckled in using a harness in the seat.
- 1 to 3 years old: Children should transition to a forward-facing seat only when they reach the maximum weight or height limit for their rear-facing seat.
- 4 to 7 years old: Children graduate from forward-facing car seats once they reach the maximum height and weight limit.
These are designed for older kids, usually around age 5 until 12 years old in some cases. Children riding in booster seats use the standard seat belts in the vehicle, although some are equipped with harnesses for younger riders.
- 4 to 7 years old: Children will be ready for a booster seat after they have outgrown their forward-facing seat. Wait until they reach the maximum weight or height limit before making the switch.
- 8 to 12 years old: Children should ride in a booster seat until they’re able to fit into a seat belt properly (see below).
Your child is ready to be a solo seat belt rider when they’ve outgrown the size limits of their booster seat or when the seat belt fits them properly, with the lap belt resting on the upper thighs and the shoulder belt fitting nice and snug across the chest and shoulders.
Regardless of what kind of seat they need, infants and kids should continue to ride in the back seat for as long as possible, at least until they’re 13 years old. Read on to learn more about making the transition.
Different Styles of Child Safety Seats
Once you’ve determined whether your child should be in a rear-facing seat, a forward-facing seat or a booster, it’s time to identify the proper seat style:
These are the carriers that you see sleep-deprived parents ushering into doctors’ offices or hauling through stores. This seat—which is secured in the vehicle via a base—is specifically designed for newborns and infants until they reach the maximum weight and/or size limit (which is usually when they are around one year old). They can be a convenient option because you don’t have to remove your little one from the seat every time you exit your vehicle. Bear in mind, though, that you will probably need to invest in a second base if you live in a two-vehicle household. You’ll also need to purchase another car seat when your child outgrows the infant carrier.
- Position: Rear-facing only.
This style of seat changes to fit your growing child. It starts out as a rear-facing seat. Then, it transitions to a forward-facing seat (more on that to come) as your child gets older. Some convertible seats are designed to fit older babies and toddlers. Others are designed to fit newborns. This can be a convenient option if you only want to buy one seat.
- Positions: Rear- and forward-facing.
As we mentioned earlier, booster seats are designed for older riders (sometimes up to 12 years old, depending on their size and weight). Some designs feature a high back that offers additional head and neck support, which is great for vehicles that have shorter seat backs or no headrests. Backless options are a good fit for vehicles where this isn’t an issue.
- Position: Forward-facing only.
Combination (or sometimes called three-in-one)
These car seats are a combination of a forward-facing seat and a booster. The design starts as a car seat with a harness. As your child gets bigger, the harness can be stowed away, and you can use the seat as a high-backed booster along with a regular seatbelt. In some models, the back can be removed to create a backless booster.
- Position: Forward-facing only.
All-in-one (or sometimes called four-in-one)
The ultimate chameleon of car seats, the all-in-one is designed to fit every child’s car seat needs. It starts as a rear-facing seat for newborns and infants, transitions to forward-facing and then can be modified to become a booster seat.
- Positions: Rear- and forward-facing.
Car Seat Laws by State
While the NHTSA provides overall safety recommendations, each state maintains its own car seat laws. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), these laws vary from state to state. Some base their regulations on age while others base them on a combination of age, height and/or weight. Do your homework and find out what’s required in your state to keep your littlest passengers safe—and to avoid fines and penalties.
How Much Does a Car Seat Cost?
Depending on the brand and style, car seats can run between $15 for a backless booster from a big-box store to nearly $700 for a high-end all-in-one seat. Remember, all car seats go through basic federal crash test requirements. So do your homework and determine which seat best suits your family, your little one and your wallet.
How To Fit and Install a Car Seat
When it’s time to install your child’s car seat, here’s what to keep in mind.
- Read your manuals. Yes, that’s manuals (plural). Every car seat and every vehicle is different. So carefully read the installation instructions that come with your car seat as well as the car seat installation section in your vehicle’s owner’s manual.
- Get to know the two installation methods. Car seats are installed using either a seat belt or the seat anchors that are a part of a vehicle’s LATCH system (that acronym stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). Find out which method is recommended for your vehicle and seat choice. If you opt for the seat belt, ensure that it’s locked properly (refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual).
- Make it safe and secure. You already know that if your child is younger than 13 years of age, they shouldn’t ride in the front. So place the car seat in the back of your vehicle and follow the car seat manual’s installation instructions. Also make sure it’s a tight fit. It should move no more than an inch when you shift it side to side or front to back when pulling it from the seat belt path.
- Attach the tether for forward-facing car seats. Refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual and find out if your system has a tether anchor. These are usually located behind or in the back of the seat. Once you locate it, attach your car seat’s tether strap to the tether anchor and pull it tight.
- Set rear-facing seats at the proper incline angle. Find your seat’s incline indicators or adjusters to ensure you have your baby in the safe and appropriate position.
- Get help. Did you know that your local fire station or police station may provide free car seat checks? If you need some help or just want to make sure you installed your seat correctly, reach out to a trained Child Passenger Safety Technician and set up an appointment. It never hurts to get a second set of eyes!
Is It Safe To Buy a Used Car Seat?
The short answer is no. Purchasing a used car seat—especially from someone you don’t know—poses some significant risks:
- Damage: If the car seat was in a vehicle that was in an accident, the seat itself could be damaged, and some of this damage may not be visible.
- Recalls: Car seats are subject to recalls, just like any other manufactured item. If you purchase a used car seat, there’s no initial way of knowing whether it was recalled or if the defect in question was fixed.
- Expiration Dates: Most car seats come with a label that includes the expiration date, which is typically six years after the manufacture date. It’s necessary to abide by the usage date to ensure you’re using a seat that’s safe and not overly worn out. If for some reason that label is missing, you won’t know for certain whether it’s safe to use.
Do I Have To Replace My Car Seat After a Crash?
NHTSA recommends replacing a car seat after what it deems a “moderate or severe” car crash. If you’re in a minor crash, however, the organization notes that you may not need to replace your seat right away. They define an accident as “minor” if all of the following conditions are true:
- The vehicle was able to be driven away from the crash site.
- The vehicle door nearest the car seat was not damaged.
- None of the passengers in the vehicle sustained any injuries in the crash.
- If the vehicle has air bags, the air bags did not deploy during the crash.
- There is no visible damage to the car seat.
At Erie Insurance, we also understand that security and peace of mind are priorities for every parent. So when an auto insurance customer is in an accident and a car seat is involved, we conduct a thorough review of the seat and vehicle damage.
If your seat is damaged, or if the vehicle damage is moderate or severe, we’ll replace your car seat as part of your insurance claim.
If you have questions about the specifics of your car seat replacement, talk to your ERIE claims representative or call your local ERIE agent.
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